Japan head coach Jamie Joseph has made seven changes to his starting XV for the opening match of the 2019 Rugby World Cup against Russia in Tokyo.
Despite losing heavily in their final World Cup warm-up match against South Africa in Kumagaya a week-and-a-half ago, the Brave Blossoms impressed in many aspects during the 41-7 defeat.
However, even with a strong showing in the second half, Joseph has rung the changes for the first match of his side’s home tournament.
The 30-year-old will lead a forward pack which will have five new faces from the side that faced the Springboks.
Loosehead prop Keita Inagaki is the only front rower who retains his place from Japan’s last outing, with veteran hooker Shota Horie and Tongan-born tighthead prop Asaeli Ai Valu replacing Atsushi Sakate and Jiwon Koo, respectively.
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Thompson has been demoted to the bench, and is in line to become the first player to represent Japan at four different World Cups should he make an appearance off the pine on Friday night.
Friday’s clash is set to be a momentous occasion for not just the Brave Blossoms, but also their opponents, Russia, and the entire nation of Japan as they become the first Asian country to ever host a Rugby World Cup.
Heading into the fixture as firm favourites, it’s uncommon for Japan to be faced with such scrutiny as the rest of the rugby world watches on, but Joseph is under no illusions that his side can live up to expectations at Ajinomoto Stadium.
“Pressure is a big part of the job and I guess I’ve been in some pretty big-pressure situations: my mother died a month ago, it’s a big pressure for me being the only boy in the family,” the former All Black said.
“I’ve been to two World Cups and played in a World Cup final so I’m really looking forward to what’s coming and the players are as well.
“It’s going to be a big occasion, not just for our team but for the country, but you can’t really replicate what coming up for the players. The boys have got to enjoy the opportunity of playing some good rugby in front of their home crowd.”
Japan side to face Russia in Tokyo on September 20:
- Keita Inagaki
- Shota Horie
- Asaeli Ai Valu
- Wimpie van der Walt
- James Moore
- Michael Leitch (capt.)
- Pieter Labuschagne
- Kazuki Himeno
- Yutaka Nagare
- Yu Tamura
- Lomano Lemeki
- Ryoto Nakamura
- Timothy Lafaele
- Kotaro Matsushima
- William Tupou
- Atsushi Sakate
- Isileli Nakajima
- Jiwon Koo
- Luke Thompson
- Hendrik Tui
- Fumiaki Tanaka
- Rikiya Matsuda
- Ryohei Yamanaka
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